CLEVELAND — It was a day of firsts for the Indians that ended with their second regular-season victory over the Yankees in two years.
With Jeremy Sowers making his first start of the year Saturday, Cleveland turned back New York 4-3 on Victor Martinez’s first career walk-off hit, which, in turn, gave Japanese reliever Masa Kobayashi his first major league victory.
Indians manager Eric Wedge also joined the party, drawing his first ejection of the season.
It all began with Sowers, the Triple-A Buffalo-banished pitcher who once owned a job in the rotation, but was making what amounted to a spot start against stiff competition in the Yanks.
Sowers made the most of the opportunity, allowing three runs on seven hits over 51/3 innings of an outing that appeared pegged for the sparkling department after the left-hander blanked the Yanks through the first five innings.
“He did a great job,” said Wedge, whose team, counting the postseason, has beaten the Yankees in five of the last six meetings. “We talked beforehand about commanding his fastball, and that’s what he did. He got behind a lot but made pitches when he had to.”
After being staked to a 3-0 lead — all coming in the second against Yanks starter Ian Kennedy — Sowers worked out of a number of jams to preserve the shutout, something he wasn’t able to do before losing his job in the rotation during the first half of last season.
He had runners aboard in each of the first five innings, but none scored, with his best work coming in the fourth, when he allowed leadoff singles to Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez before retiring the next three hitters in order.
“I think the big step is that when guys are getting on base, I’m finding a way to keep them there,” Sowers said.
Sowers didn’t get the opportunity to emerge from his final precarious position, when he loaded the bases with one out, and then watched as reliever Jensen Lewis allowed a pinch-hit triple to Jorge Posada that cleared the bags and tied the game at 3.
David Dellucci made a diving attempt at Posada’s tailing line drive, with the ball getting past him and nobody behind him to back it up.
“I definitely put myself in that situation, but it happens,” Sowers said. “It was a little frustrating, being that close, but we came back and won.”
The Indians have Kobayashi and Martinez to thank for that.
Kobayashi, whom the Indians have used sparingly early in the season, stood tall against the vaunted Bronx Bomber lineup, retiring the side in order on two strikeouts in the eighth inning, then pitching out of a sticky situation in the ninth to set the stage for Martinez’s heroics.
“Masa was outstanding,” Wedge said. “He’s a guy that’s been more and more comfortable on the mound. He knows what he wants to do out there. He really picked us up in that top half of the ninth.”
With one out in the ninth, Kobayashi allowed consecutive singles to Johnny Damon and Melky Cabrera, as the Yanks threatened to score the go-ahead run with Captain Clutch, Derek Jeter, coming to bat.
Kobayshi didn’t buckle, getting some assistance from second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, who made a nice play on Jeter’s ground ball to turn an inning-ending double play by himself.
Kobayashi, a veteran of nine professional seasons in Japan, said he couldn’t recall his first victory there, but that he was certain he would remember this one.
“I won’t forget my first major league win against the Yankees,” Kobayashi said through an interpreter. “It will be a lifetime memory for me and a major league memory as well.”
Martinez made sure his reliever would have something for the scrapbook when he came to the plate with one out and the bases full against Yanks reliever Ross Ohlendorf.
With the count 2-1, Martinez lifted a soft liner to left that scored Grady Sizemore with the winning run. Martinez celebrated as if the Indians had clinched the division.
“It was my first walk-off hit, so I was going to enjoy it,” Martinez said.
Watching from the clubhouse, Wedge was pleased to see Martinez approach the plate with the game on the line.
“He’s a clutch performer,” Wedge said. “He wants to be up there in those situations. That’s the biggest part of it. As long as he doesn’t try to do too much, odds are something good’s going to happen.”
Sticking with the daylong theme, the victory improved the Indians to 12-12 — the first time they’ve been at the .500 level since April 8.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or email@example.com.
WHO: Cleveland vs. N.Y. Yankees
TIME: 1:05 p.m.
WHERE: Progressive Field
PITCHERS: Sabathia (1-3, 10.13 ERA) vs. Wang (4-0, 3.94)
TV/RADIO: Channel 3, WTBS; WMMS 100.7-FM